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Father Nick Nelson: The sources of temptation — the flesh, the world, and the devil

As we begin the holy season of Lent, we find ourselves in the desert with Jesus. The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent is always the temptation of Jesus in the desert. We are familiar with the three temptations. These three temptations have been traditionally known as the flesh, the world, and the devil. Jesus has fasted for 40 days and is tempted to turn stones into bread. This is the temptation of the flesh. He is tempted to throw himself off the Temple so that the angels can come to save him. This is the temptation of the world. He is brought up high and tempted with the power and glory of having all the kingdoms of the world if he worships the devil. This is the temptation of the devil. The flesh, the world, and the devil are the three traditional enemies of the soul. These three are the unholy trinity, the three sources of temptation.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

The flesh refers to our fallen human nature. Because we are descendants of Adam, we were born with original sin. That was removed at our baptism, but its residue, concupiscence, remains. “Concupiscence” is a fancy word meaning our passions and desires are disordered. They don’t order or direct us towards what is always good for us. We often want things that are opposed to our flourishing. We have a bent towards sin. For example, I want five pieces of chocolate cake instead of one. Or I want to be silent rather than speak up and defend the Catholic faith.

The world refers to all the vanities and seductions of the world. Think of all the commercials and billboards you see. They all tempt and seduce you to wanting the four main things this world offers us, i.e., power, honor, wealth, and pleasure. But they are four things that by definition cannot totally fulfill you.

And then there is the devil. While the devil works through the other sources of temptation, i.e., the flesh and the world, he also works in a more direct way at times. He and his evil demons can suggest ideas indirectly through our senses, especially through what we see and hear. First, they can work through deceptions. Jesus called the devil “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Consider the devil’s first temptation to Eve. “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1). No, God said they could eat of any tree, just not that one. Second, the devil also works through accusations. Scripture refers to him as the “Accuser” (Revelation 12:10). Accusation is a more personal lie, such as, “you’re hopeless” or “nobody likes you.” Third, the devil tempts through doubt, especially doubt concerning the Fatherhood of God. “Can you really and fully commit to God? Maybe he really just wants you to be unhappy your whole life.” Fourth, the devil tempts through enticements. In the Garden of Eden, the devil tempted Eve with “a tree that was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). Finally, the devil tempts by provocation. He plants thoughts or arranges circumstances that will provoke us to sinful thoughts such as lust, pride, vanity, or despair.

It may also be worth considering that if Jesus was a perfect man, how could he have been tempted? St. Thomas Aquinas says that, strictly speaking, Jesus was only tempted by the devil, not by the flesh or the world. Because to be tempted by the flesh and the world means that the temptation is caused by concupiscence. And concupiscence is the result of our fallen human nature, which Christ did not have. All temptation for Christ was always external to him. He never took pleasure in the thought of the temptation (Summa Theologicae, III, Q 41, A 1). Whereas for us, there is the suggestion, which is external to us, but then it can transition to the delight that we take in the temptation. The temptation has moved us and therefore moved internal to us. So, temptation is different for us than it was for Jesus and our Blessed Mother, who was without concupiscence as well.

Now, why was Jesus tempted in the first place? Aquinas gives us four reasons. First, that he might strengthen us against temptations. St. Gregory the Great said, “It was not unworthy of our Redeemer to wish to be tempted … in order that by his temptations he might conquer our temptations, just as by his death he overcame our death.” Second, that no one, no matter what state of holiness he has reached, may falsely believe that he is free from temptation. Third, that we may have an example of how to overcome temptation. Fourth, to fill us with confidence in his mercy. “For we do not have a high priest, who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was similarly tested in all things, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

“Finally,” St. Paul tells us, “Draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:11- 13).

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]